Water and the Chemical Revolution

  • Hasok Chang
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science book series (BSPS, volume 293)


It was through the Chemical Revolution of the late eighteenth century that water first came to be recognized as a compound, having been considered an element since ancient times. In this chapter I offer a revisionist account of that momentous event. A systematic appraisal shows that the old phlogistonist system of chemistry was not clearly inferior to Lavoisier’s oxygenist system of chemistry. Lavoisier’s system actually suffered from significant empirical and theoretical problems already recognized at the time, and there was significant methodological incommensurability between the two systems, though only mild semantic incommensurability. Aside from the effective and ruthless campaigning by the Lavoisierians, the demise of phlogiston (which was not as sudden or complete as often imagined) was most of all due to the advent of compositionism as a dominant trend in chemistry, into which phlogistonist practices did not easily fit. With the demise of phlogiston, many valuable elements of knowledge were lost; in effect, these were recovered and developed later with the help of different concepts (e.g., potential energy and electrons), but I argue that it would have been better for science if the phlogistonist system had been allowed to continue its work. This conclusion also anticipates the more general argument for pluralism in science, to be given fully in Chap. 5. In order to give more precision in the articulation and defence of these ideas, I introduce and use the notion of system of practice as a unit of analysis.


Oxygenist System Empirical Adequacy Epistemic Activity Counterfactual Reasoning Phlogiston Theory 
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Authors and Affiliations

  • Hasok Chang
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of History and Philosophy of Science Free School LaneUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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